Minimize medicine risks

You can play a role in preventing medication errors and misuse

Medication errors—mistakes in prescribing, dispensing, taking or giving medications—impact hundreds of thousands of people a year. Some occur in a hospital or healthcare setting, others occur at home. Preventable medication errors can send patients to the emergency room, to the hospital, or worse, result in death in the most tragic cases.

Examples of medication errors that commonly happen at home include:

  • Taking multiple medicines that contain the same “active ingredient.” For example, taking an over-the-counter (OTC) product that contains acetaminophen when you’re already taking a prescription pain medicine that contains acetaminophen. This can result in exceeding the recommended acetaminophen dose and putting yourself at risk of liver damage.
  • Taking or giving an incorrect dosage of a medicine, oftentimes the result of using a kitchen spoon rather than a metric measuring device
  • Taking an incorrect medicine dispensed by a pharmacy due to sound-alike names or confusing medical abbreviations.
  • Taking someone else’s medication instead of your own, which can result from multiple medicines for multiple users stored on the same location.
  • Taking a medication on an empty stomach when it is supposed to be taken with food

Medicine error or medicine misuse?

While medical errors are generally accidental, medication misuse can sometimes be intentional. For example.

  • Over use: taking more than prescribed or recommended dose by the healthcare provider or label. This can happen by accident—maybe you forgot you took your blood pressure medicine this morning, so you take it again. Or it can be intentional, like taking an extra dose of a prescription or OTC pain relievers for a headache or backache.
  • Under use: taking less than prescribed or recommended, missing or skipping doses either accidentally or intentionally, not filling an initial prescription or failing to get a refill.
  • Not following instructions on the label.
  • Taking medicines that are not prescribed for you.

What you can do to avoid medication errors and misuse

The single most important way you can help to prevent medication errors is to be an active member of your healthcare team. That means taking part in decisions about your healthcare, asking questions and being knowledgeable about the medicines you take. Research shows that patients who are more involved with their healthcare tend to get better results. Medication errors can happen anywhere: at home, at the hospital, at pharmacies, at elder care facilities. Wherever medicines are given, errors can occur.

Maximize the benefits your medicines can provide and prevent medication errors with the following tips: 

  1. When your healthcare provider writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can’t read the handwriting on the prescription, your pharmacist might not be able to either. Ask your healthcare provider about e-prescribing, in which your prescription is electronically entered and sent to the pharmacy of your choice.
  2. Ask for information about your medicines in terms you can understand—both when your medicines are prescribed and when you receive them at the pharmacy—so that you can take your medicine safely and avoid errors. (See 10 questions to ask about the medicines you take)
  3. When you are being given a medicine at the hospital or picking up a medicine from the pharmacy, confirm it is medicine that your doctor prescribed. Studies show that the vast majority of medicine errors involved the wrong drug or the wrong dose.
  4. Ask your pharmacist for the best device to measure your liquid medicine. Special devices, like marked cups or oral plastic syringes, are available at most pharmacies and help to measure the precise dose.
  5. Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medicines. This can help you avoid getting a medicine that can harm you.
  6. Read about the side effects listed on the written information that comes with your prescription medicine. If you are familiar with the possible side effects that could occur, you can more quickly recognize if you are experiencing one and alert to your healthcare provider or pharmacist.
  7. Make sure that all of your doctors know all the medicines you are taking, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbs.

Adapted from "20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors," Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Publication No. 00-PO38, Feb. 2000. AHRQ, Rockville, MD.